As he leaves Boston, Archer feels tranquil, even though he has no promise of further opportunities to see Ellen. She has held a perfect balance between their loyalty to others and honesty to themselves. He is glad that he did not tempt her. She will go back to Europe only if she feels she is becoming a temptation to Archer; she will stay near him as long as he does not ask her to come nearer.
Back in New York at the railway station, he recognizes the man he saw coming out of the Boston hotel. It is M. Riviere. Riviere tells him that he has been sent here on a special mission and that he wishes to consult him about it. He is Count Olenski's emissary to Ellen. He has failed to persuade Ellen to fall in with the Count's wishes. He considers that his mission on behalf of the Count is over.
Riviere begs Archer to persuade her family that it is a bad idea for her to go back to her husband. He has had talks with several members of Ellen's family, all of whom want Ellen to go back to her husband. Archer suddenly knows why he has been excluded from these discussions: some tribal instinct has told the family that he is no longer on their side. He realizes that May's remark that perhaps Ellen would be happier with her husband had been held up deliberately as a straw in the wind. She had reported his angry response to the family, and they had thereafter left him out of their counsels.
Riviere had carried out his mission from the Count in good faith, as he had believed at first that it would be better for her to go back. But after he had listened to her and seen the change in her since she had been in America, he had changed his mind. Riviere says he used to see her in her husband's house, as he knew the Count. This leads Archer to wonder if Riviere is the secretary who helped Ellen escape and with whom she lived for a year. Riviere says that the Count's wish to have her back is not simply, as her relatives think, a longing for domestic life. Archer thanks him.
Rumors continue to circulate about Beaufort's shady business dealings. Though society tolerates hypocrisy in private relations, it exacts an impeccable honesty in business dealings. If there is any truth in the rumors, nothing will save Regina Beaufort from social disgrace, even the fact that she is of the pre-eminent Dallas family. However, Beaufort is asking influential people to tide him over.
Every year, Archer's mother complains that the customs of New York society are changing for the worse. Dress has become more extravagant and amusement is pursued for its own sake. Mrs Struthers has become acceptable, and even May goes to her parties, though Mrs Archer has not quite forgiven Ellen for being the first to accept Mrs Struthers. The family has taken to discussing Ellen in a deprecating tone, since she refused to go back to her husband. The Welland-Mingotts had "let poor Ellen find her own level," which had been with people like the Blenkers and "people who wrote."
May blushes when Ellen is mentioned. Archer wonders what this can mean. He has not seen Ellen for four months, since the day in Boston. She has returned to Washington. She has become part of his secret life of unexpressed thoughts and longings.
At the Archers' house, Sillerton Jackson says it is a pity that Ellen refused her husband's offer. What will she live on, now that Beaufort looks set to be ruined? Archer is furious at the implication of adultery. Sillerton says that Mrs Mingott has told him that the family reduced Ellen's allowance when she refused to go back to her husband. By this refusal, she also forfeited the money settled on her when she married, which Olenski was prepared to make over to her if she returned.
Archer says he knows nothing of her finances, but he objects to Sillerton's insinuation that Ellen was kept by Beaufort. Sillerton protests that he doesn't say this, but Lefferts does. Archer points out contemptuously that Lefferts courted Ellen and got snubbed. Sillerton reflects that it is a pity that Ellen has not gone back before, since if Beaufort is ruined and she goes back now, it will confirm that she has been kept by Beaufort. Archer is sure that she will not go back. But Sillerton points out that Medora's small remaining funds are in Beaufort's hands.
Archer is angry because Sillerton now knows that Archer knew nothing of Ellen's differences with the family. Sillerton will have concluded that Archer was left out of the family confidences because they think (wrongly) that he and Ellen are lovers.
Archer despairs at the prospect of endless years with May. He tells her he may have to go to Washington on business, regarding a patent case before the Supreme Court. She agrees, and reminds him to go and see Ellen. Her comment is a coded message. It tells Archer that she knows that he has broken with the family policy and advised Ellen not to go back to her husband. She knows too that he will see Ellen in Washington.
Archer hears that the lawsuit that will provide his cover story for going to Washington has been postponed. Archer does not intend to put off his visit, however, as May will probably not hear about the lawsuit.
Rumors circulate that Beaufort will be helped through his troubles by powerful influences.
Mr Letterblair tells Archer that Beaufort had not been "tided over"; but had put out a rumor that he had been, thereby keeping money flowing into his bank. But the disturbing rumors had arisen once more, and people had started pulling their money out of the bank. This would ruin Beaufort. By his dishonest behavior in continuing to accept funds after he knew his bank would fail, Beaufort has added to his disgrace. Mr Letterblair worries about the effects on Archer's family, as they are relations.
Archer receives a message from May asking him to come to see Mrs Mingott, who has had a stroke. She had heard about Beaufort's troubles from Regina Beaufort, who had visited her to ask the family to back them financially. Mrs Mingott had refused, but the shock of being asked to do such a dishonorable thing brought on the stroke.
Mrs Mingott asks to see Ellen. May says that it is a pity that Ellen's train to New York will cross Archer's train bound for Washington on the way.
Though New York society considers itself the height of sophistication, Wharton portrays it as primitive and tribal. Some tribal instinct has told the Welland-Mingott family that in the matter of Ellen, Archer is not on their side. Hence he has been left out of discussions that concluded that Ellen should go back to her husband.
The fact that Rivi�re is able to enlist Archer to argue against Ellen's returning to her husband when he was previously enlisted by the family to argue that she should not divorce him confirms that Archer has never been perceived as his own person. In the battle for Ellen's mores, he is used first as a champion by society, then as the voice of Ellen's individual interests.
Wharton's narrator is not omniscient, and there is much that we are not told and about which we can form our own judgments. We are not told whether Ellen and the secretary were lovers, or what the relationship is between Ellen and Beaufort, or how much May knows about her husband's feelings for Ellen. This creates in us an insecurity similar to that felt by the characters. For example, we must guess what people know about Archer's secret life, just as he must guess, and thus we are given a sense of his alienation from society.
Archer's unsuccessful attempts to conform to society's demands have led him to set up a parallel life made up of his hidden desires, longings and thoughts. Ellen has become part of Archer's 'real' but secret life, where he brings the books he reads, and the ideas he has. Outside this world, "in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blunder against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room" (Chapter 26, p. 224).
It is clear from the coded, unspoken message that May gives to Archer in Chapter 26 that she knows he has broken ranks with her family and advised Ellen not to return to her husband. In true tribal fashion, May is in solidarity with her family on this issue; indeed, Archer knows from talking with Riviere that she deliberately sounded him out on the issue before reporting his traitorous conduct to her family. In the long unspoken dialogue, Wharton also implies that May knows more than she admits about Archer's feelings for Ellen. It would not be proper for May to say anything explicitly to Archer about this, so she pretends she is unaware of it.
There is a sinister undertone to these episodes between May and Archer, in which nothing is explicitly said but everything is understood. Their marriage is a sort of triangular cold war with May, Archer and Ellen at its center, and May's family and society as the troops. It is not based on trust and friendship, but on mistrust, espionage, secret strategy meetings, coded messages, and exclusion of traitors.